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A Beginnerís Guide to tracing family history

in England & Wales

by Angela Petyt

Everyone is a unique combination of attributes and features inherited from parents, and through them, from earlier generations. Gaining knowledge of our Ďrootsí provides the firm foundations of who we are. Genealogy was once the preserve of the rich and powerful, who needed to prove their aristocratic lineage. Today, it is a popular and absorbing pastime for people from all walks of life, and access can be gained to a cornucopia of documents, which can weave together the threads of a familyís story.


Drawing a Family Tree and Keeping Records


It is essential that you decide, at an early stage, how to record any information about your ancestors. Jottings on scraps of paper can become lost or their interpretation meaningless after a while.

Ways of keeping records

i)          A notebook
ii)         Loose-leaf file
iii)        Card index
iv)        Computer Program

There is no `right` way of keeping records. Choose the option that is most suitable for you.

Some people give each ancestor a code e.g. a number, so that they can cross reference and distinguish between several `John Smiths`. The main essential requirement is that you ALWAYS make a careful note of the source consulted e.g. parish register, census return, the place where you saw it (library/archive) and the reference number given to it. It is also good practice to record all personal and place names exactly as spelt.

Computer programs have the advantage in that you can constantly update information. This is especially useful for family tree charts. These programs can also incorporate desk-top publishing and website design facilities.

The internet has many items of interest to family historians. See my Links page.


Family Tree Charts

There are two main types:

i) The Birth Brief: this is a horizontal chart with the subject on the left and their ancestors spreading out to the right.

ii) The Drop-Line: this chart is the traditional system, with husband and wife at the top, and children below.

The main problems in drawing charts are illegitimate descent - shown traditionally by a dotted line; multiple marriages - see how the English royal family tree solves the problem of Henry VIII and his six wives; and the large families common in the 19th century - the `Victorian Bulge.


 Golden Rule

A good family historian is one who keeps their ancestral discoveries in a clear and logical format, and ensures that someone looking at their records in 100 years time is able to understand and enjoy the results of their research.


Family Sources

Talk to relatives. They may produce a wealth of anecdotes and facts, family heirlooms and papers which can contribute much of the basic groundwork, such as -

Family Bibles
Birth, Marriage & Death certificates
Location of gravestones
School leaving certificates
Wartime documents and medals
Newspaper cuttings
Wedding Invitations
In Memoriam cards
Furniture, china, silver
Previously drawn family trees


Civil Registration

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England and Wales on 1st July 1837. Access to this information is by consultation of the Quarterly Indexes which give the individual`s name, registration district and a reference number.


Each certificate will show the following information:


the Superintendent registrar`s district and sub-district
the place of birth
the day, month and year
the name and sex of the child
the name of the father and his occupation
the forename of the mother, her married name, followed by her maiden name
the date of registration
the name and address of the informant
the name of the registrar


place, district and church/chapel/register office
full date of marriage
name of groom; whether bachelor, widower or divorced
his age - exact, or `full` (over 21), or `minor` (under 21)
his occupation
his residence
his father`s name and occupation
the bride`s name; whether spinster, widow or divorcee
her age, or `full`, or `minor`
sometimes her occupation (fairly rare before 1900)
her residence
her father`s name and occupation
whether the marriage was by banns or licence
the denomination of the church
whether the couple signed or made marks
signatures or marks of witnesses
name of clergyman or registrar      


district and sub-district
place of death
name, age and sex of deceased
occupation (of men and single women); of husband (married woman); of father (child)
cause of death, nature and duration of illness
date when registered
name and address of informant (relative or person present at the deathbed)
registrar`s name


Example of Index entries for Births


Surname,                      First Name, Registration District,              County code

BATTERSBY,                JOHN,               WAKEFIELD,               9c 111


N.B. To match up a bride and groom in order to obtain a marriage certificate, the Registration District and County Code must be exactly the same in each entry.



Census Returns


What is the census?

A census of the population of England and Wales has been compulsory since 1801 (with the exception of 1941). The returns have been taken every 10 years, but only after 100 years have passed are the census returns available for public inspection. The returns prior to 1841 are of a general statistical nature, but a few survive which give names, number of persons in the household and occupations. The returns from 1841-1911 are probably the most helpful and revealing records of their Victorian ancestors that a family historian is likely to encounter.


It is by this stage in your research that the addresses revealed by previous work (family stories and documents, civil registration etc.) can be of such value. The nearer the date of the source that gives the address is to the date of each census, the greater the possibility that the person sought will be found at that address when the census was taken. (Please note that our ancestors were often extremely mobile, especially in towns - moving from one rented house to another).


The censuses were taken on Sundays, and recorded every person who slept in the house that night, together with those on night shift who returned in the morning. The dates are:


1841:    June 6th

1851:    March 30th

1861: April 7th

1871:    April 2nd

1881: April 3rd

1891: April 5th

1901: March 31st

1911: April 2nd


The returns are arranged by place - house by house, street by street - following the system used for the registration of births, marriages and deaths: that is, superintendent registrar`s districts based on the poor law Unions. These were divided into sub-districts, and again into enumeration districts. In rural areas these might cover several villages; in urban areas, a handful of streets in a town.


What information does the census give me?

The head of each sheet will show the county and parish or township, with the name of the town or village. The columns beneath show:

In 1841:

the name of the street, place or road
the name and surname of each person in the house
age (exact to age 15, rounded down to the nearest 5 years for adults)
rank, profession or occupation
whether born in the same county
whether born in Scotland, Ireland or foreign parts


In addition, from 1851:    

name and number of the house
relationship to the head of the household
matrimonial status
exact age
exact parish and county of birth
whether blind, deaf or dumb (from 1871, whether an imbecile, idiot or lunatic)

In all, the census is a wonderful source for showing families and communities in their local environment - indicating, for example, social status, predominant trades, and dates and places of birth of inhabitants.



The IGI and the LDS Church


What is the LDS Church?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is more popularly known as the Mormon church. Members of the church believe that family relationships are perpetuated beyond the grave, and so all Mormons must trace their ancestors in order that they can be posthumously baptised into the faith and families 'sealed' together. To assist members, the church authorities embarked on an international programme to collect genealogical information. This is also available for non-Mormons to use.


The I.G.I.

the International Genealogical Index is probably the most exciting and ambitious family history project ever undertaken. Planned, financed and executed by the Mormon church, this computer index contains many millions of entries, arranged by country, county, surname, christian name, and the date and place of the event. The names have been collected worldwide from parish registers and family pedigrees, with an emphasis on the more genealogically productive events: baptisms/births and marriages rather than burials/deaths, although some of the latter are included. It is most useful from 1538-1837 (when civil registration began) although there are entries after this date. Both Church of England and Nonconformist registers have been consulted.


The IGI has been made available in three formats -

Microfiche: 6" x 4" plastic sheets containing about 16,000 entries on each one. Separate sets of fiche for each county.

CD-ROM: more sophisticated; allows country-wide searches.

The Internet:

The CD-ROM and internet versions also include 'Ancestral File' (collections of pedigrees submitted by researchers) and the Family History Library Catalogue (see below).

The I.G.I. is not absolutely reliable, but despite errors, the index has revolutionised family history research, by showing at a glance an opening to the original records (as the entries should always be checked against the parish registers eventually). The entries are grouped by surname, with all the variations, so the I.G.I. can give some idea as to surname distribution in period and place. The first edition of the I.G.I. appeared in the 1970's, the sixth edition was isued on microfiche in 1992, with subsequent CD-ROM editions. The British Isles index currently contains about 72 million entries.


Where to see the IGI

Local Studies Departments of libraries and County Record Offices (Archives), as well as -

Family History Centres

The Mormons have established centres where anyone can utilise the mass of information gathered by the church for their own research. The biggest and best is in America at Salt Lake City, but there are many family history centres in Britain

These centres will have the IGI on computer for the whole world, the 1881 census index, and other family history records such as the birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales from 1837, as well as some Irish and Scottish records. You can also order for viewing at your local centre (at very low cost) microfilm or fiche of any record that the Mormons have collected worldwide, eg. a parish register for a village in Cornwall or a census return for Boston, USA.


Parish and Nonconformist Registers


At this stage of research, the accumulated evidence from civil registration certificates and census returns will have provided the names of your ancestors, dates of events and places where they were living, back to the early 19th century. Now, the records of the Parish and its administration will provide the main data for earlier generations.

Parish registers are a major source of basic genealogical information from 1538 to the present day . The I.G.I. is a good starting point, but it cannot be used alone for creating and proving a pedigree. The original registers need to be consulted.


Where are Parish and Nonconformist Registers?

Completed parish and nonconformist registers should be deposited in the relevant County Record Office. Many are now only available for viewing on microfiche/film, and copies of these may also be found in Local Studies Libraries. Photocopies of register entries can be obtained.

Many transcripts and indexes of registers have been made over the years by antiquarians and family history societies. These will be held in CRO's and Libraries. Parish registers are also available on the internet on sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past.


The Church of England

Some useful dates in the history of parish registers:

1538:    Thomas Cromwell ordered the minister of each parish to record every baptism, marriage and burial. Most entries were made on loose paper sheets and no standard guidance was given as to exactly what the ministers should write. Therefore, some fascinating additional comments can be found in early parish registers.

1598:    From this date entries were to be written in books made of parchment. Previous entries were ordered to be copied into the new books, particularly all those since the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558. Many clergymen therefore only copied up entries from 1558 and the entries from 1538-58 have been lost. In addition, ministers were ordered to send an annual copy of the entries in their parish registers to the bishop of the diocese. These are known as Bishops' Transcripts.

1754:    Following Lord Hardwicke`s Marriage Act to prevent the upsurge in clandestine mariage, marriages were now entered in a separate register. Bound volumes of printed forms were introduced in which the parish of residence, marital status, whether married by banns or licence, and the signatures or marks of the bride and groom and two witnesses were to be recorded.

1813:    Rose`s Act ordered that baptisms and burials were now to be entered in separate printed registers. Baptism entries were to record the child's name, parents' names, residence and father`s profession. Burial entries were to record the name, age and residence of the deceased.

1837:    The Births, Marriage and Deaths Act established the system of civil registration (see above). All marriage registers were now to record the name, age, occupation and residence of the bride and groom, and the name and occupation of their fathers.


Nonconformists (e.g. Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, Jews, Roman Catholics)

Some important dates:

1534:    Henry VIII`s Act of Supremacy established the Church of England with the monarch as its head. Before this, England was a Roman Catholic nation with the Pope as its spiritual leader.

1662:    The Act of Uniformity was designed to settle religious problems. Many new sects had emerged from the Reformation. Those Protestants who chose not to follow the Church of England became known as dissenters or nonconformists.

1689:    The Toleration Act made some concessions to nonconformists, giving them the right to have their own places of worship and ministers, as long as they swore certain oaths. However, Catholics were excluded from this Act.

1715:    Catholics were required to register their names and estates with the Clerk of the Peace of Quarter Session in the county where they lived.

1754:    Quakers and Jews were exempt from the terms of Lord Hardwicke`s Marriage Act (see above) and were able to marry outside the Church of England. Most other nonconformists had to marry in their Anglican parish church for the union to be legal.

1829:    The Catholic Emancipation Act enabled Catholics to worship freely, to sit in Parliament, to vote at elections and to hold property unconditionally.

1837:    By the terms of the Marriage Act, nonconformist churches and chapels could be licensed for the solemnisation of marriages. Each marriage ceremony had to be conducted in the presence of the district registrar who was to record the details in a separate register.

1898:    Nonconformist chapels could request that an authorised person from their congregation would act as a registrar of marriages.



  © Angela Petyt 2001. All rights reserved.

 Permission is granted for all free personal and non-commercial uses.

Commercial use of any portion contained herein is expressly prohibited.


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